How Thin is Too Thin?

by Charlotte on June 18, 2010 · 12 comments

Our society is warped. Twisted. A veritable fun-house of fat and thin mirrors when it comes to body image. One on hand we have Kim Kardashian, queen of curves, compelled to exclaim in an interview, “I look a lot bigger on TV. When I meet people, the first thing they say is, ‘Wow, you’re so much smaller than I thought’. I look about 15 lbs heavier. I’m only 115 lbs, and everyone thinks I’m like 130 or 140. It’s bizarre. I’m a US size 2!”

On the other hand we have Kai Hibbard, a finalist on Season 3 of The Biggest Loser, interviewing about how the show gave her an eating disorder to the point where she was eating 1,000 calories while working out 5-8 hours a day. Says Kai about the consequences of her experience, “It gave me a really fun eating disorder that I battle every day, and it also messed up my mental body image because the lighter I got during that T.V. show, the more I hated my body. And I tell you what, at 144 and at 262 and at 280, I had never hated my body before that show.”

Kim Kardashian and Kai Hibbard I am not (and not just because my name doesn’t start with K) but I really sympathize with their feelings about being on TV and dealing with the resultant body image woes.

I’ve gotten a lot of interesting feedback from my 20/20 piece but one of the most common comments I’ve got is some incarnation of “But you never looked that skinny.” The implication of course is that I wasn’t skinny enough to have an eating disorder. I first encountered this during my pre-interview process with Fox News. The producer kept asking me for my “skinniest skinniest pics, the ones that show the most bones.” I knew what they wanted. They wanted to see a 64-lb walking skeleton with a nasogastric tube and furry arms. Because that’s good television. From the very beginning I told them I never got that thin but sent them some pictures from that time period. They weren’t satisfied and kept phoning, texting and e-mailing me for better pics all the way until I’d boarded my airplane. If I were more technically savvy it would have driven me to Photoshop, I swear.

The Skinny Pics Debacle Take 2 happened after the 20/20 interview taped, but before it aired. The producer for the segment e-mailed me many times asking for better shots with the implication being skinnier shots. But it wasn’t limited to just TV people with their characteristic penchant for extremism. My own family joined the chorus. In an e-mail to my uncle about the piece, my father wrote, ” I saw her frequently through the whole time period in question and yes, she was slim, but she was healthy, energetic, and happy (as far as I could see), and so I was never worried. I admit freely that she cares about food in ways I don’t, but hey, different strokes for different folks.”

I love my dad dearly and consider him a great friend as well as a great father but his seeming dismissal of my illness stung. Friends and acquaintances jumped on the bandwagon as well – some by comparing me to the super-skinny Johnny of the 20/20 piece and others by comparing me to popular TV or movie stars. “Well, you were thin but not like Angelina Jolie thin. And she doesn’t have an eating disorder.” To my crazy mind all of these comments came out sounding like “You weren’t thin enough as a normal girl and you certainly weren’t skinny enough as an anorexic/orthorexic. Even when you’re bad you’re not good enough!” How skinny would I have to get before people thought I was actually sick?

Here’s the thing: I had a BMI of 17. According the World Health Organization anything under 18.5 is considered unhealthy. But in a world where Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham subsist at about a 16, I do look kind of porky. And it wasn’t just low weight. I lose my period when my BMI dips below 19 – a fact I’ve discovered on several occasions in my post-pubescent life. Amenorrhea is indicative of such poor nutrition that the body feels like it cannot support a baby. I had low iron, whacked-out electrolytes, vitamin deficiencies, a suppressed thyroid, heart arrhythmias and hair loss. But worst of all was the mental damage. I was depressed, neurotic and withdrawn.

It’s true that I didn’t break any bones, lose teeth or end up in the hospital with a tube up my nose – a fact for which I am deeply grateful. But I did hurt. It’s just most of the hurt was emotional. And that’s the wound I’m still working on healing.

At my thinnest – and most fragile mentally – I got tons of compliments. Everywhere I went people commented on my physique. One woman at the gym even told me I had “the perfect body” (as if there is such a thing). I loved how I looked in clothes, even while I was secretly horrified at how I looked naked – since I lose weight in my upper body first, my chest looked like a xylophone while my legs still kept their fatty bits. My therapist maintains that the compliments came because of my increased self confidence – and she may be right – but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we are conditioned to appreciate only extremely thin women.

A lot of women with eating disorders look “normal” to us.

My dirty little not-so-secret is that I would love to be that weight again, ribs and all. But I can’t do it and remain healthy. Some women probably can weigh what I did and keep their periods and their sanity. Not me. Not my body. And so I choose to maintain a weight higher than what is comfortable for me and waffle back and forth between self -hatred and -love because I know where the alternative leads and I can’t pay that price anymore. Even if that makes me look 15 pounds too fat on camera.

What about you – does the weight you personally like yourself best at correspond with the weight other people think you look good at? Have you, like Kai, ever felt worse about yourself at a lower weight?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Brook April 16, 2012 at 12:08 pm

I wasn’t thin enough either when I was anorexic. After all, I only got down to 98 pounds on my muscular 5 foot 3 frame! Truthfully, I also had amenorhhea the began when I got down to around 105. Thankfully I was able to go to a wonderful treatment center at age 17 for 3 months and I am now a 34 year old homeschooling mom of 3 and pregnant with my 4th…probably last…homeschooling that many is a juggling act! When I am not pregnant I maintain between 120 and 130 and I am thankful everyday for a clear mind and a healthy body. Mostly, I don’t exercise because I can tend to allow it to take over, but I do maintain an active life with my family and eat normal, balanced meals and snacks daily.

Thanks for your great site!

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Dagny April 17, 2012 at 11:16 pm

I just want to say that I understand the warped body image, and feeling fat when we aren’t; but I think you look beautiful, strong, healthy, and curvaceous in all your pics that I’ve seen. You may not be comfortable at your “right” weight, but it is your right weight. :-)

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Jenn September 8, 2012 at 10:49 am

Wow! I can 100% relate to this. I am now in day treatment for anorexia and overexercising; and it’s crazy the comments I got from people about how “good/fit/healthy” i looked even though I was at a 16-something BMI. This is my second time in treatment for my ED; I was in residential treatment for 6-months in 2006. But it is so hard to deal with gaining weight when there are so many mixed messages and people telling you how “great” you look and how they wish they had your “discipline”.
I know ED;s at the root are not about food/weight/etc… but about the mental anguish we deal with every second of every day, but it’s hard to let go when so many people give you praise for all your “hard work”.
I just wanted to say that I completely 100% understand to how you must have felt hearing those comments. Every time a new client comes in looking emaciated and obviously “anorexic” I am barraged with thoughts of “i’m not good enough; i can’t even starve myself; she is better than me; I don’t have a real problem; etc…”
But for anyone suffering with an ED; the mental torture is what hurts the most; not the skinny body.
I hope you are treating your body with kindness and remember that you are enough.
Jenn

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Rosanna November 4, 2012 at 12:18 am

I’m actually starting to dread being too thin. I’m always concerned when I weigh more, but I know it’s healthier for me and I tend to lose easily due to chronic health problems. I’m starting to like myself a bit heavier. I like the curves. I actually get more compliments at a heavier weight. It’s strange because people keep telling me how small I am even though I usually weigh 130-135 lbs on a 5’4″ frame. If I get below 130 lbs. people say I look too thin!

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Delle November 18, 2013 at 9:22 am

It’s probably still too early in the day for me to adequately express how appalled I am at hearing how you were harrassed for not fitting some preconceived notion of what someone with anorexia ‘should’ look like. This is why I mistrust those who are in the business of selling news/journalism. On one hand it should be a good thing that eating disorders get media exposure to help increase awareness, but by trying to focus solely on extreme cases of the illness for purposes of sensationalism are they hindering instead of helping? It seems to me that their efforts just work to create a very narrow view of what this illness is about, i.e., many people have come to only truly associate anorexia with those poor souls who look like images of WWII concentration camp prisoners. I was one of those people until I started reading your blog many years ago. I have now come to understand that anexoria is defined by a person’s thought processes and behaviours, and not by how much they might weigh at a given time. Before reading this blog I would never have imagined how many people I probably pass on the street every day that in my eyes seem so normal and attractive but who are actually anorexic. How much harder must it be to try to admit you have a mental disorder and come to terms with being anorexic when it seems everyone around you is actively counteracting the process by saying how great you look and that you are perfectly fine and definitely not thin enough to have an eating disorder? I cannot imagine having to face that already monumental struggle with your own disordered thoughts when the people around you are actually feeding the illness by reinforcing the very perceptions that are the root of the problem in the first place. I used to be chronically depressed when I was younger and have since learned to manage it. It was a difficult process at times, but now I am wondering how ever I would have coped if rather than being surrounded by people who told me how wonderful I am and how much I had going for me they were instead telling me I am a worthless, terrible person and my life was utter crap, because the principle is the same.
Oh man…too many feels for a Monday morning! lol Great post as always Charlotte! :)

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Charlotte November 22, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Oh thank you for this Delle! I love this whole comment so hard – I wish I’d had you when this was all happening, lol!

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